We all have an identity. It’s a self-definition, a way we understand ourselves. Most often it lies in the background, informing all we do and say. It determines our patterns of thinking—the way we see the world.
The Apostle Paul gives us the best picture of what needs to happen with this identity once we come into Christ. He writes in Philippians 3:2-11.
2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. 7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Paul starts this section by telling the Philippians to watch out for those religious people who mutilate the flesh. This is a very graphic picture from circumcision, the rite where the foreskin was removed, the sign that a person had become a Jew. What Paul is saying essentially is that religious people, who use the flesh for their feelings of adequacy, are like those who would perform circumcision with a cheese grater. All they do is make a bloody mess of things.
Paul advocates a better circumcision—removal of the flesh—that comes in Christ.
Paul explains that he is not advocating this removal of the flesh because he is in any way inferior when it comes to the flesh. In fact, when it comes to the flesh he had far more reason to boast.
So, how does Paul define the flesh? He goes on to lay out the following categories (verses 5-6):
Racial Heritage: Paul says he was the supreme Jew. We might take our identity from our race and the culture associated with it. I am a white male. I have been a white male all my life. This means I relate and identify with the world through my white maleness. We all have a racial and family background. It has become our context, the way we have made meaning of our lives.
Position: Paul was a Pharisee, one of the strictest Jewish sects. He had risen in the ranks far above others of his age. For myself, I have held many positions in my life. I could use them to give myself a sense of worth. All cultures and races have these value markers. When we think, “They really made something of their lives,” we are identifying these markers.
Performance: Paul’s zeal was shown in his persecuting the church. It was his great accomplishment. I am closer to the end of my life than the beginning. At such times it is easy to reflect on accomplishments, to take pride in some of the things we have done that have made a difference.
Reaching the Bar: Paul says he was blameless according to the Law of God. He lived up to the strictest measures of the Law. Again, each of our contexts has an unwritten code of acceptance. We have a clear conscience when we live up to the expectations of our race/family.
So what did Paul do with his flesh? What are we to do with ours?
In verses 7-11 Paul tells us that he counts everything he was in the flesh, his racial/family/national heritage, including all his positions and accomplishments as loss. In fact, he counts them as dung. Think about that. Taking everything you have prided yourself with, everything you have accomplished, your whole life’s work, and thinking of it as utterly worthless, as dung, worthy of flushing down a toilet.
To gain Christ and be found in Him in that last day, whenever the last day is for each of us. This tells us that we cannot continue with two identities—our racial identity and our Christian faith. To do so is to allow the possibility that we will put our confidence in the flesh and forfeit what we have in Christ. Paul would not risk this. He threw away, counted as loss, everything of his flesh, his pre-Christian identity, like the heavy cargo causing a balloon to sink to destruction. As he tosses is all aside, he replaces it with the new identity he has in Christ. So what fills these categories now?
Heritage: We are members of the new humanity, inaugurated when Christ rose from the grave. We are of the race of Christ which surpasses all human categories. As Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). We are part of God’s family. He is now our father. Christ is our closest brother as well as our Lord. Those in Christ are our brothers and sisters. Our entire identity is now related to who we are in Christ.
Position: Our position in Christ is one that is secured when we take hold of the wonderful salvation offered us in Christ. The position of sonship/daughtership is not achieved. It is granted to all in Christ. We do not advance in it. We start and end at 100 percent. We have arrived. This is not a source of personal pride, for all we have in Christ is His gift.
Performance: Here again, all we do in Christ, all that matters, is done by the Spirit working through us. Therefore, we cannot take any pride in it. We can thank God for working through us, but all the glory and praise goes to Him.
Reaching the Bar: In Christ, He has reached the bar for us. In Him we have perfection. Paul says it like this:
“… be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” (Philippians 3:9).
So, why toss aside everything we grew up valuing about ourselves, everything we took pride in? We do it to gain something far better—to gain Christ and the identity and worth that comes in Christ. Jesus says it like this:
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Matthew 13:44).
So, how do we actually do this? How do we count the flesh as dung and redefine ourselves in terms of Christ? This is the purpose of the Christian life. It is a focused strategic program of redefining who we are. It happens through consciously denying our old identities (the flesh) and building our identity in Christ.
Paul writes to the Ephesians, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
We have the ability, in Christ, to put aside our old identities, our old way of life, and to put on the new self. It is like taking off one set of clothes and putting on another.
Of course, we will, at times, fall back into the flesh. We will catch ourselves using the old mental pathways to define ourselves or others or circumstances and events. When we see this in ourselves, we must stop, confess this (admit it before God), and toss it overboard for the sake of gaining Christ. This is a process that will take a lifetime, but one worthy of the effort. Paul thought so. The reward? To be found in Christ at the end—to be part of God’s family forever.